“Our Brains and Souls on Art”: U. Melissa Anyiwo interviews Patricia Leavy

U. Melissa Anyiwo: You’re a sociologist turned arts-based researcher turned novelist. Tell us about this journey.

Patricia Leavy: Sociology is my home discipline, and that training has served me well, providing a lens through which I see and tools to use in my research. But I think once we have our core training, sometimes we need to travel away from our homes, both bringing our tools with us as well as an open and curious mind. We need to seek new perspectives, tools, and synergies. For me it’s been a long journey, but a natural one. I’ve loved the arts for as long as I can remember. Since I was very young I’ve participated in multiple art forms and spent most of my leisure time enjoying various arts. Early in my professional career as a sociologist I became frustrated with the limitations of sociological research. At the time I was conducting media analysis work as well as interview research, primarily with women, about their relationships and identities. I was frustrated with the traditional forms available for sharing my research findings. Academic research is communicated through peer-reviewed journal articles, conference presentations, and monographs. None of these forms are accessible to the public. Women like those I was interviewing would never benefit from my work. Moreover, academic journal articles are poorly read even within the academy. Most have no audience at all. I started looking for new ways to engage in inquiry and new ways to share any insights gleaned. That’s when I stumbled across arts-based research (ABR). In essence, ABR involves adapting the tenets of the creative arts in a research project in any discipline. The art form may be used for data generation, analysis, and/or representation, or the art practice may serve as the entire act of inquiry. ABR made sense to me. I started dabbling and now years later, I’ve written five novels and a collection of short stories inspired by sociological insights and interview research. It’s been an extraordinarily enriching and invigorating experience. My work reaches people both inside and outside of the academy and the level engagement is far deeper and more emotional than anything I experienced with academic nonfiction. I’ve also learned that creating art, and in my case, writing fiction, is an incredible process of discovery. I’ve learned more about the subjects I’m interested in from writing my novels than from anything else. Not only do I advocate for the arts in and as research, but I urge others to push past comfort zones, tap into their creativity, and intellectually travel beyond their home-base.

As you’ve noted in several lectures and publications, there’s compelling neuroscientific research about how people experience art. Can you summarize the significance of this research?

I think many people know, on some level, that the arts can reach and move us in unique ways, at times leaving long-lasting impressions. There’s neuroscientific research that helps explain how we experience art. I wrote a blog titled “Our Brains on Art” a few years ago. In short, research shows that various arts, including fiction, impact us in surprising and important ways. For example, there’s research that shows close readings of fiction cause global activations across numerous regions in our brains, including those involved in movement and touch. This helps explain the feeling of immersion people have as they engage closely with fiction, feeling as if they are inside the story-world. Research also shows there is heightened connectivity in our brains for days after reading a novel. There’s similar research on visual art.

There’s an emotional or social aspect, too, right?

Absolutely, and as a sociologist, that’s largely what interests me. I think of it as our brains and souls on art. The immersive and emotional way we participate with art gives it the power to affect us deeply. The arts, including fiction, can subvert stereotypes, jar people into thinking or seeing differently, open people up to new perspectives, stimulate self and social reflection, foster critical consciousness, and help people develop compassion. I believe, as do many others, this is because the arts invite empathetic participation. Art invites emotional responses that can heighten empathetic engagement. We begin to feel for others in a way we hadn’t before. This is the heart of developing compassion. When we watch a play, for example, we develop relationships with the characters. We have an emotional response. We may develop new understandings as we see certain situations unfold from vantage points other than our own. We see the world through the eyes of others. This is not the experience we have reading or watching the news or hearing a lecture. We simply engage differently with art and therefore it can move us. Consider the topic of racism and policing in the US. This is a hugely divisive topic. What will move people into considering perspectives other than their own? What would an honest conversation around this topic look like, especially for White people? How could it happen? The Broadway Play turned Netflix event American Son tackled this very subject and arguably reached a cross-section of people that would otherwise never understand the perspectives highlighted in the show. The play features a Black mother in a police station in the United States in the middle of the night. Her son is missing. When I saw it on Broadway, the diverse audience laughed, cried, were stunned silent, and leapt to their feet in a highly emotional standing ovation. This is the power of art to reach people: a power unique to art.

The pedagogical capabilities seem enormous.

Absolutely. Arts integration in education is vital because the arts are not only important in and of themselves, but they are tremendously useful in the teaching and learning of other subject matter. A history lesson about the Holocaust paired with a novel or narrative film is likely to make a far greater impact on students. A physics lecture paired with a visual art slide show or gallery visit is likely to make a far greater impact on students. Moreover, in these situations students that may not be reached by the traditional lecture and lesson approach, may learn a great deal more as a result of the arts component. These are just examples. In my own work as a sociologist turned novelist, my sociological insights are embedded into my novels, and yet, the novels can be read by anyone looking for a vacation read.

Let’s pick up on that. After years of writing about the arts in/as research, about a decade ago you turned to fiction in your own work. You even pioneered the method of “social fiction” which has inspired many others. Can you describe that approach and what you’ve been able to achieve with fiction?

When I started writing novels, I knew they’d be grounded in my sociological insights. So although each one can be read by anyone simply as a work of fiction, I wanted to create a term to capture the art/research aspect of this work. “Social fiction” describes fiction that has, in one way or another, developed out of scholarly viewpoints. Further, I’m committed to blurring the art/science divide, as well as trade and academic publishing, both of which I view as false and limiting polarizations, so it was important to me to label my novels both as art and as research. Different authors create social fiction in different ways so there’s no cookie-cutter approach. For some, the work is directly based on research such as interview data, ethnographic observations, or survey research. For others, the work reflects a literature review. And for others the work is born more from cumulative insights and using the writing process itself as a method of inquiry.  As for what I’ve been able to achieve with fiction, it’s a long list. Originally I wanted to reach broader audiences with my work, and I’ve been able to do that. Novels are accessible. I’ve also found the personal and professional fulfillment that escaped me before. The artistic, creative process is immersive, engaging, and rewarding in a way nothing else has been. I love my work life. It’s also been a tremendous process of discovery. What I didn’t appreciate it the beginning was how much I would be able to get at with fiction, especially when I push myself. You can access truths that are otherwise out of reach. Writing a novel is an incredible process of discovery. I’ve learned more from writing fiction than from anything else.

What have you learned?

I’ve developed more compassion and empathy. When you write a novel, you feel deeply for all of the characters, no matter what their flaws or shortcomings may be. Everyone has struggles we know nothing of; everyone has made sacrifices or compromises. People’s lives are textured. We can show kindness and understanding in small but powerful ways, sometimes simply through a mutually understood silence or other knowing gesture. In those ways of being, in those moments between friends and lovers, in those moments we sit alone with our dreams and their shadow-sides, beauty abounds. Fiction has taught me about beauty. Fiction is a process of discovering beauty, even where we least expect to find it. Really, novelists are just beauty-seekers.

Please tell us about your new novel, Film.

Film follows three women who moved to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams. Tash Daniels aspires to be a filmmaker. Her short film was rejected from festivals, she has a stack of rejected grant proposals, and she lost her internship at a studio when her boss harassed her, forcing her to take a job as a personal shopper. Lu K is a hot deejay slowly working her way up the club scene, but no one is doing her any favors. Fiercely independent, she’s at a loss when she meets Paisley, a woman who captures her heart. Monroe Preston is the glamorous wife of a Hollywood studio head. As a teenager she moved to LA in search of a “big” life, but now she wonders if reality measures up to fantasy. When a man in their circle finds sudden fame, each of these women is catapulted on a journey of self-discovery. As the characters’ stories unfold, each is forced to confront how her past has shaped her fears and to choose how she wants to live in the present. Film is a novel about the underside of dreams, the struggle to find internal strength, the power of art, and what it truly means to live a “big” life. Frequently shown bathed in the glow of the silver screen, the characters in Film show us how the arts can reignite the light within. With a tribute to popular culture, set against the backdrop of Tinseltown, Film celebrates how the art we make and experience can shape our stories, scene by scene. Honestly, it’s absolutely my favorite thing I’ve ever written. It’s the book I’ve always wanted to read and I loved every minute of writing it. Although it deals with some tough subjects, it’s actually quite light. It’s meant to be a fun and upbeat read with the message that we are possibilities and we can have multiple passions in our lives.

As a social scientist, what were your goals?

Following the work of others, primarily Black feminists such as bell hooks, I look at art as a cultural intervention. It’s a means of putting other stories, images, or perspectives into the culture. It’s a means of getting people to think and feel differently. My novels are intended to be a contribution, a way of intervening in the culture, and offering an alternative to what we typically see. In this way, my novels are a mix of chronicling how things are and imagining how they might be. I’m always interested in exploring the front stage and back stage. In other words, how we appear to others and the versions of ourselves we present to different people in different contexts, and our back-stage struggles and private selves, which might be quite different than what people see. I’m fascinated by that gap and how it impacts our psyches and relationships. I think there’s also beauty and inspiration to be found when we show more of ourselves to certain people, those we feel who get us, or when we have mutually understood silences with those people, out of love and kindness. That’s an aspect of relationships, whether friends or lovers, that I like to explore. I’m also always interested in making micro-macro links. We all live out our lives and relationships in a larger social and cultural context. So much of our lives are shaped or influenced by social forces. I think we can all relate to having dreams and chasing them, or in some cases, not chasing them. In Film, I wanted to show the challenges three women have faced pursuing their creative dreams in Los Angeles, the city of dreams. All three women have faced sexual harassment and other traumas that far too many girls and women face. For these women, like many others, this is the underside of their dreams.

Picking up on that you mentioned the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up initiative in the preface of the novel. How did they influence the writing?

I decided to write Film before the recent iteration of the #MeToo movement or the Time’s Up initiative. Themes of sexual harassment and assault were always going to be a part of the subtext of the narrative. Both of these interrelated movements are responding to what girls and women have long been dealing with. Yet of course I was fueled by these cultural shifts. By the time I started writing there was a timeliness to the novel I hadn’t originally anticipated. The cultural landscape always influences our work and that was certainly the case for me writing Film. Some of the choices in the book that flowed naturally from my pen resulted from the climate at the time. For example, when I had to decide how or why Tash was no longer interning at a studio and was instead working a dead-end job, it was clear: her boss sexually harassed her.

Earlier you used the phrase “cultural intervention.” Do you see Film as activism?

I see Film as a contribution to pop culture narratives about women and relationships. It’s an alternative narrative meant to empower readers. I view all of my novels, as well as my nonfiction work and the publishing platforms I’ve created as a contribution or a cultural intervention. They all offer other ways of seeing grounded in social justice values. As scholars, artists, and/or authors I think it’s important to be clear about our value system—and use it as our North star. This allows us to build a body of work grounded in something bigger than ourselves. So in a sense, I do think of my work as a form of activism. But writing and publishing doesn’t buy us out of doing other forms of activism, whether it’s participating in a protest or boycott, donating our time to nonprofits, or showing up at the polls. These forms of activism are desperately needed, too.

Film carries a powerful narrative about the arts. Please explain your message about the arts.

The art we create and experience can reignite the light within. We can use art to make sense of our lives, to find our internal compass, to experience joy, engagement, and connection, and to become who we are meant to be. Art can save us.

What do you see on the horizon at the art/research nexus?

It’s an interesting time. On one hand, in the United States the arts have been under attack the past few years, with funding being slashed and many feeling censored. On the other hand, there’s been tremendous growth. Arts-based research has grown enormously in recent years with a proliferation of new books, journals, articles, conferences, and so forth. This has been occurring around the world. Finland now has professorships in ABR, foreign translations of ABR books have increased across Asia, and there have been conferences and symposiums in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. We also continue to see more research at the intersection of neuroscience and art, which I believe will fuel pushes toward arts integration in education. I’m optimistic that we will continue to see a blurring of the art/research divide, more practitioners willing to take creative chances, and more publishers and funding agencies willing to support innovative work.

What’s next for you?

I recently released The Oxford Handbook for Methods for Public Scholarship, which was many, many years in the making. I want to do more nonfiction. I’m working with Guilford Press and Oxford University Press on several projects in the areas of arts-based research, public scholarship, and qualitative research. I’m also growing my various book series. I’ve recently developed a new book series with Brill/Sense titled Art Plus which I’m especially excited about. Each book in the series will consider art at the intersection of at least one other field or discipline. This series is a dream come true and I hope further propels our understanding of the arts and the arts as they relate to other fields. We’ve recently started signing authors so right now I’m pretty busy getting it off the ground. I’m writing new fiction, too. Although I didn’t plan it, I’m far along with two novels: one is a love story about how we heal and the other is a dark novel about America and betrayal.

Film is available at Brill:


For More about Arts-Based Research:


U. Melissa Anyiwo, PhD., is Professor of History at Curry College.

Patricia Leavy is a scholar, novelist, and internationally recognized proponent of arts-based research. She’s dedicated to exploring the art/research connection, advancing the arts, and using the arts to make research more engaging and accessible to the public. She’s published over 25 books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction, a distinction she’s been blurring for years. As a sociologist turned novelist, she’s penned a slew of novels grounded in sociological insights. Her novels are at once research and art. She’s also the co-founder of Art/Research International and creator and editor for eight book series including the ground-breaking Social Fictions series and the newly established Art Plus series (both with Brill/Sense). I recently caught up with Patricia to talk about the power of art and fiction, how the arts can be used as a cultural intervention, and her highly acclaimed new novel, Film.

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